Maybe even smaller?

There’s a sofa in my office. Sometimes it’s used to seat some clients for a consultation, sometimes I use it for a nap. This evening Anne and I are sitting on it, close together, after a meal of Eddie’s Pizza d’amore.

“I’ve been thinking, Sy. I don’t want to use my grow-shrink superpower very much.”

“Fine with me, I like the size you are. Why’d you decide that?”

“I remember Alice saying, ‘Three inches is such a wretched height to be.’ She was thinking about what her cat would do to her at that height. I’m thinking about what an amoeba might do to me if I were down to bacteria-size and I wouldn’t be able to see it coming because I’d be too small to see light. It would be even messier further down.”

“Well, mess is the point of quantum mechanics — all we get is the averages because it’s all chaos at the quantum level. Bohr would say we can’t even talk about what’s down there, but you’d be in the thick of it.”

She shudders delicately, leans in tighter. <long, very friendly pause> “Where’d that weird number come from, Sy?”

“What weird number?”

“Ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth. You mentioned it as a possible bottom to the size range.”

Now you’re asking?”

“I’ve got this new superpower, I need to think about stuff.  Besides, we’ve finished the pizza.”

<sigh> “This conversation reminds me of our elephant adventure.  Oh well.  Umm. It may have started on a cold, wet afternoon. You know, when your head’s just not up to real work so you grab a scratchpad and start doodling? I’ll bet Max Planck was in that state when he started fiddling with universal constants, like the speed of light and his own personal contribution ħ, the quantum of action.”

“He could change their values?”

“No, of course not. But he could combine them in different ways to see what came out. Being a proper physicist he’d make sure the units always came out right. I’m not sure which unit-system he worked in so I’ll just stick with SI units, OK?”

“Why should I argue?”

“No good reason to. So… c is a velocity so its units are meters per second. Planck’s constant ħ is energy times time, which you can write either as joule-seconds or kilogram-meter² per second. He couldn’t just add the numbers together because the units are different. However, he could divide the one by the other so the per-seconds canceled out. That gave him kilogram-meters, which wasn’t particularly interesting. The important step was the next one.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense.”

“He threw Newton’s gravitational constant G into the mix. Its units are meter³ per kilogram per second². ‘Ach, vut a mess,’ he thought, ‘but maybe now ve getting somevere. If I multiply ħ by G the kilograms cancel out und I get meter5 per second³. Now … Ah! Divide by c³ vich is equal to multiplying by second³/meter³ to cancel out all the seconds and ve are left mit chust meter² vich I can take the square root uff. Wunderbar, it is simply a length! How ’bout that?‘”

“Surely he didn’t think ‘how ’bout that?‘”

“Maybe the German equivalent. Anyway, doodling like that is one of the ways researchers get inspirations. This one was so good that (Għ/c³)=1.6×10-35 meter is now known as the Planck length. That’s where your ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fifth comes from.”

“That’s pretty small. But is it really the bottom?”

“Almost certainly not, for a couple of different reasons. First, although the Planck formula looks like a fundamental limit, it’s not. In the same report Planck re-juggled his constants to define the Planck mass (ħc/G)=2.2×10-8 kilograms or 22 micrograms. Grains of sand weight less than that. If Planck’s mass isn’t a limit, Planck’s length probably isn’t either. Before you ask, the other reason has to do with relativity and this is not the time for that.”

“Mmm … so if space is quantized, which is where we started, the little bits probably aren’t Planck-sized?”

“Who knows? But my guess is, no, probably much smaller.”

“So I wouldn’t accidentally go out altogether like a candle then. That’s comforting to know.”

My turn to shudder. <another long, friendly pause>.

~~Rich Olcott

The Pretty-good Twenty-nine

Time for coffee and a scone. As I step into Al’s coffee shop he’s taking his Jupiter poster down from behind the cash register.

“Hey, Al, I liked that poster. You decide you prefer plain wall?”

“Nah, Sy, I got a new one here. Help me get it up over the hook.”

A voice from behind us. “Ya got it two degrees outta plumb, clockwise.” Vinnie, of course. Al taps the frame to true it up.

Teachers, click here to download a large-format printable copy.

“Hey, Sy, in the middle, that’s the same seven units we just finished talking about — amps for electric current, kelvins for temperature, meters for length, kilograms for mass, seconds for time, moles for counting atoms and such, and that candela one you don’t like. What’s all the other bubbles about? For that matter, what’s the poster about, Al?”

“What it’s about, Vinnie, is on May 20 the whole world goes to a new set of measurement standards, thanks to some international bureau.”

Le Bureau International des Poids et Mesures.” It’s Newt Barnes in from the Physics building. “The bubbles in that central ring are the BIPM’s selections for fundamental standards. Each one’s fixed by precisely defined values of one or more universal physical constants. For instance, a ruler calibrated on Earth will match up perfectly with one calibrated on Mars because both calibrations depend on the wavelength of radiation from a cesium-based laser and that’s the same everywhere.”

“How about the other bubbles and the rings around them?”

“They’re all derived quantities, simple combinations of the fundamental standards.”

“Hey, I see one I recognize. That °C has gotta be degrees centigrade ’cause it’s right next to kelvins. Centigrade’s the same as kelvins plus , uh, 273?”

“There you go, Al. What’s ‘rad’ and ‘sr’, Newt?”

“Symbols for radian and steradian, Vinnie. They both measure angles like degrees do, but they fit the BIPM model because they’re ratios of lengths and length is one of the fundamentals. Divide a circle’s circumference by its radius and what do you get?”

“Twice pi.”

“Right, call it 2π radians and that’s a full circle. Half a circle is π radians, a right angle is π/2 radians and so on. Works for any size circle, right? Anyone remember the formula for the area of a sphere?”

“4πr2, right?”

“Exactly. If you divide any sphere’s area by the square of its radius you get 4π steradians. Any hemisphere is 2π steradians and so on. Steradians are handy for figuring things like light and gravity that decrease as the square of the distance.”

Something occurs to me. “I’m looking at those bigger bubbles that enclose the derived quantities. Seems to me that each one covers a major area of physical science. The green one with newtons for force, pascals for pressure, joules for energy and watts for power — that’d be Newtonian physics. The red circle with volts plus coulombs for charge, ohms for resistance, farads for capacitance, siemens for electrical conductance — all that’s electronics. Add in henries for inductance, webers for magnetic flux and teslas for flux density and you’ve got Maxwellian electromagnetism.”

“You’re on to something, Sy. Chemistry’s there with moles and katals, also known as moles per second, for catalytic activity. How does your idea fit the cluster attached to seconds?”

“They’re all per-second rates, Newt. The hertz is waves per second for periodic things like sound or light-as-a-wave. The other three are about radioactivity — bequerels is fissions per second; grays and sieverts are measures of radiation exposure per kilogram.”

“Vinnie says you don’t like candelas, so you probably don’t like lumens or luxes either. What’s your gripe with them?”

“All three are supposed to quantify visible light from a source, as opposed to the total emission at all wavelengths. But the definition of ‘visible’ zeros in on one wavelength in the green because that’s where most people are most sensitive. Candelas aren’t valid for a person who’s color-blind in the green, nor for something like a red laser that has no green lightwaves. I call bogosity, and lumens and luxes are both candela-based.”

“These 29 standards are as good on Mars as they are here on Earth?”

“That’s the plan.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Magnificent Seven

“Hey, Sy, you said there’s seven fundamental standards. We’ve talked about the second and the meter and the kilogram and the ampere. What’s left?”

“The mole, the kelvin and the candela, Al. They’re all kinda special-purpose but each has its charms. The mole, for instance, is cute and fuzzy and has its very own calendar date.”

“You’re pulling our legs, Sy. A cute unit of measure? No way.”

“Hear me out, Vinnie. How many shoes in a dozen pairs?”

“Huh? Two dozen, that’s twenty-four.”

“Sure, but it’s easier to work in dozens. How many hydrogen atoms in a dozen H2O molecules?”

“Two dozen, of course. Are we going somewhere here?”

“Next step. A mole is like a dozen on steroids, about 6×1023 whatevers. How many hydrogen atoms in a mole of H2O molecules?”

“Two moles, I suppose, or 12×1023.”

“You got the idea.”

“Cute.”

“A-hah! Gotcha for one.”

“Fair hit. How about the fuzzy part and the date?”

“The fuzzy has to do with isotopes. Every element has an atomic number and an atomic weight. The atomic number counts protons in the nucleus –all atoms of an element have the same atomic number. But different isotopes of an element have different numbers of neutrons. The ‘weight’ is protons plus neutrons, averaged across the isotopes. If you’re holding a mole of an element, you’re holding its atomic weight in grams. The fuzzy happens because samples of an element from different sources can have different mixtures of isotopes. You may have some special diamonds that contain nothing but carbon-12. A mole of those atoms masses exactly 12 grams. My sample is enriched with 10% of carbon-13. Mole-for-mole, my carbon is a tad heavier than yours. In fact, 6×1023 of my atoms mass 12.10 grams. That’s an extreme example but you get the idea.”

“Fuzzy, a little, OK. And the date thing?”

“June 23 is Mole Day, celebrated by Chemistry teachers everywhere.”

“What’s the kelvin about then?”

“Temperature. And most solid-state electronics. Zero kelvin is absolute zero, the coldest temperature something can get, when the maximum heat has been sucked out and all its atoms have minimum vibrational energy. From there you heat it up degree by degree until you get to where water can co-exist as liquid, solid and water vapor. It used to be the standard to call that temperature 273.16 K.”

“Used to be? Water doesn’t do that any more?”

“Oh, it still does, but the old standard had problems. It used five different ‘official’ techniques and 16 different calibration checks to cover the range from 3 K up to the melting point of copper. Some of those standards, like the melting pressure of helium-3, are not only inconvenient but expensive. Others led to measured intermediate temperatures that disagree depending on which direction you’re going. The defined standards did nothing for the plasma people who work above 1500 K. It was a mess.”

“So how does the new standard fix that?”

“It exploits new tech, especially in solid-state science. The Boltzmann constant, kB, is sort of the quantum of heat capacity at the microscopic level. The product kBT is a threshold energy. Practically everything that happens at the quantum level depends on the ratio of some process energy divided by kBT. If the ratio’s high the process runs; if it’s low, nothing. In-between, the response is predictably temperature-dependent. Thanks to a plethora of new solid-state thermal sensors that depend on that logic, we now have a handle on the range from microkelvins to kilokelvins and above.”

“Pretty good. What’s the last one?”

“It’s the one I’m least happy about, the candela. It’s a unit for how bright a light source is, sort-of. Take the source’s power output at all optical frequencies and ‘correct’ that by how much each frequency would stimulate a mathematically modeled ‘standard human eye.’ Isolate the ‘corrected’ watts at 555 nanometers, multiply by Kcd=683. It’s a time-hallowed metric that lighting designers depend upon, but it skips over little things like we actually see with rod cells and three kinds of cone cells, none of which match the standard curve. Kcd is just too human-centered to be a universal constant.”

“Humans ain’t universal. We’re not even on Mars.”

“Yet.”

~~ Rich Olcott